Off to the Races

Trump's Numbers Improve, But GOP Problems Remain

Despite an uptick in recent polls, Republicans still face an intensity gap, with key Democratic groups looking especially motivated.

President Trump at a campaign rally at Elko Regional Airport on Saturday in Elko, Nev.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Oct. 22, 2018, 8 p.m.

Knowing that midterm elections are referenda on the incumbent president, Republicans have prayed since the early stages of this election cycle that President Trump’s job-approval ratings would rise. GOP officials and strategists knew that in many (but not all) places and voter groups, Trump was a millstone around the necks of their candidates. Well, the good news for Republicans is that his numbers have definitely been improving since Labor Day. The bad news is that it doesn’t appear to be helping most GOP candidates.

This past weekend, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Trump’s job-approval rating up to 47 percent, the highest of his presidency, with his disapproval rating down to 49 percent, the lowest since the initial NBC/WSJ poll under Trump’s tenure, in February 2017. This rise confirms other recent data. For example, in the Gallup poll, Trump’s approval has been at 44 percent for the past two weeks, the highest since it hit 45 percent June 11-17. The Gallup approval numbers show a pretty steady progression, climbing gradually from 38 percent for Sept. 10-16 to the current 44 percent. The intensity of the disapproval has also declined some, with 1.4 voters strongly disapproving for every one that strongly approved, the same ratio found in the October 13-16 Fox News poll (which also showed a 47 percent overall approval, 51 percent disapproval). An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Oct. 8-11 was slightly wider, at 1.6 to 1 (overall approval 41 percent, disapproval 54 percent)..

The NBC/WSJ poll, conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff from Public Opinion Strategies and Democrat Fred Yang of Hart Research, shows that Trump’s 47 percent, while much improved, is the same as President Obama’s in late October 2010—the year that Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and their majority in that chamber, and six Senate seats—and it’s 1 point worse than President Clinton had in October 1994, just before his party lost 54 seats in the House, eight Senate seats, and control of both chambers. So while Trump’s numbers are getting better, they’re still bad.

And the math is still difficult for Republicans in the House for several reasons.

First, there are more Democrats than Republicans. In the six NBC/WSJ polls since June, 32 percent of voters identify as Democrats, and 26 percent as Republicans, a 6-point Democratic edge. Even when those independents who admit to leaning toward one party or the other are factored in, the advantage is 5 points, 42 to 37 percent.

Then there is the much discussed intensity differential. In the six NBC/WSJ polls since January that asked voters their interest in the upcoming midterm elections, the merged data for January through September showed 63 percent of Democrats called their interest levels as either 9s or 10s, on a scale of 1 (low interest) to 10 (high interest), while 53 percent of Republicans rated themselves as 9s or 10s. That’s a 10-point intensity advantage for Democrats, though the September poll showed a sharp uptick among Republicans. And in the October survey, Democrats increased 9 points to 72 percent, while Republicans were up 15 points to 68 percent.

So Republicans have finally engaged to a point just shy of where Democrats are. There are still more Democrats and they are slightly more engaged, but their advantage is not of the magnitude that they had over the summer and before the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.

Overall, 48 percent of voters nationally preferred a Democrat-controlled Congress to 41 percent for Republicans. That 7-point Democratic edge is down from 9 points for the year, and 8 points in September.

Two sets of numbers jump out. In the GOP halcyon midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, Republicans led by 13 and 12 percentage points in the suburbs, where Democrats now have a 1-point lead. In 2010 and 2014, among white women, Republicans had leads of 19 and 14 points, respectively; Democrats now lead by 8 points. In competitive House races, and to a certain extent in many gubernatorial and state legislative contests, those are numbers that are driving that blue Democratic wave. But in the Senate, where nine of the 13 competitive Senate contests are in states Trump carried, states with disproportionate numbers of rural and small-town voters, that blue Democratic wave just doesn’t get that far.

Some of this is natural, Republican voters “coming home,” but undoubtedly the Kavanaugh fight just sparked a different reaction in the heartland than it did in the cities and suburbs. Thus there’s a high chance of a split-decision election: Republicans either holding steady or more likely increasing their margin in the Senate, while losing ground in the more suburban-oriented House contests, and very likely, their majority in that chamber.

One factor worth watching is whether Latino and voters ages 18-34 actually show up and vote this year. Historically both groups vote in low numbers, particularly in midterm elections. I remain skeptical that 2018 will be an exception. While both groups may vote in higher proportions than normal for midterms, each is unlikely to reach the potential that their relative share of the electorate should be. The new NBC/WSJ poll does have some striking signals, though.

In their mid-October 2006 survey (a good year for Democrats), just 39 percent of those 18-34 expressed their level of interest as either nine or 10, while the merged data for younger voters from all NBC/WSJ polls for 2010 and 2014 were 34 and 28 percent respectively. For the surveys conducted January through September this year it was just 35 percent, but in this mid-October poll, it was up to 51 percent. For Latinos, the mid-October 2006 number was 62 percent, actually 2 points higher than among whites, while for 2010 and 2014 it was 48 and 41 percent, respectively. This month it was 71 percent, higher than the 64 and 68 percent respectively among whites and African-Americans. Given that voters 18-34 and Latinos favor Democratic control of the House by 26- and 40-point margins, respectively, these are intriguing numbers. If they pan out, Democrats are in for a really good night, if they vote closer to their traditional numbers, it might be underwhelming for the blue team.

Going through the questionnaires and analyses of the major network polls, which are far more sophisticated than virtually of the state-level polls in the public domain, is like trying to drink from a fire hose of data. But one interesting finding in that NBC/WSJ poll involved people who have a negative opinion of both parties. Recall that in 2016, the voters who disliked both Hillary Clinton and Trump broke at the end heavily toward Trump, arguably making the difference in the election. In this poll, among those who had a negative opinion of both parties in the August survey, they favored Democrats by 3 points, 42 to 39 percent. In September, those with negative views of both parties favored Democrats by 5 points, 43 to 38 percent. But in the latest survey, the Democratic margin soared to a 42-point margin, with 59 percent favoring a Democratic Congress and 17 percent favoring one controlled by Republicans.

In both cases, those with a “pox on both your houses” mentality broke toward the side that represented the most change. Two years ago it was Trump; this year, it’s Democrats.

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